artist : freelance photographer


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Heredity, Shared Experiences and Crime as Portrayed in Composite Portraits

Two of humankind’s most basic psychological needs are to understand oneself, and to understand where the self fits into a larger social context. To procure the answers to these questions of self, people look both inward, and comparatively outward, seeking shared human experiences. Prior to the advent of mass produced photography, people had little means with which to compare themselves, their experiences and social status in a global context. Little was also understood about how and why people behave the way they do, have certain traits and characteristics, or occupy certain stations on the social ladder.

In 1835 Henry Fox Talbot invented photogenic drawings, and soon after in 1839 Louis Daguerre introduced the Daguerreotype (Orvell, 234). The Daguerreotype allowed for a photographer to render a portrait of a subject more accurate than that of a painter. This method of portraiture became popular amongst the elite of society, and in 1850 Matthew Brady produced The Gallery of Illustrious Americans, a portrait collection of engravings of prominent contemporary figures based on Daguerreotypes (Orvell, 234). This collection was mass produced, and galleries for viewing of these and other portraits were established. Not only did this provide people with a new way of viewing themselves, they now had a large selection of figures to view: figures who embodied wealth, success and morality. As photography became more accessible, scientists began using this form of imaging as a method of research.

In the late 18th century John Kasper Lavater revived the principles of Physiognomy, the assessment of one’s personality based on physical attributes, in his works Essays on Physiognomy. These principles were developed into the pseudoscience Phrenology, and the belief that one’s external appearance is revealed by bumps on the head was popularized throughout Britain through Phrenological parlors (Orvell, 234). The advent of photography allowed for the expansion of physiognomy, as subjects could be studied, measured and compared based on a photographic portrait. Sir Francis Galton, a scientific pioneer of the early 19th century, studied anthropology, statistics and meteorology among many other subjects (Pearson). He coined the phrase “Nature vs. Nurture” and was a pioneer of the social philosophy of eugenics (Stephens).

Galton, was greatly influenced by the work of Charles Darwin, however he misunderstood the mechanisms of inheritance, and believed that the expression of traits was as "under human control” (Galton). He argued that human genetic traits could be improved through increased reproduction with individuals who expressed “desired traits (positive eugenics)” and reduced reproduction with individuals who expressed “undesired traits (negative eugenics)”. Galton developed many different methods of studying the body internally to determine the physical expression of desired traits, however most were unsuccessful in achieving the desired results. He turned his studies to the external body and explains “It was while endeavouring to elicit the principal criminal types by methods of optical superimposition of the portraits, such as I had frequently employed with maps and meteorological traces, that the idea of composite figures first occurred to me” (Galton). Fellow sociologist and biologist Henry Spencer suggested that Galton could achieve this by tracing portraits onto transparent paper, one could layer the portraits and thereby optically superimpose them. Galton attempted this method, but found it to be imprecise. He also acknowledged the use of stereoscopic viewers as an attempt to produce the same result, but felt this method was unsuccessful; “It is nevertheless a makeshift and imperfect way of attaining the required result. It cannot of itself combine two images; it can only place them so that the office of attempting to combine them may be undertaken by the brain”(Galton).

 During his 1877 presidential address to the Anthropological Subsection of the British Association at Plymouth, he described a method by which he could compile portraits of people of similar social, cultural, and racial groups to assess their physical commonalities and produce a portrait representative of that group “My own idea was to throw faint images of the several portraits, in succession, upon the same sensitised photographic plate.” In a memoir read before the Anthropological Institute in 1878, he reports the results of his experimental trails “Since, my address was published, I have, caused trials to be made, and have found as a’ matter of fact, that the photographic process of which I there spoke enables us to obtain with mechanical precision a generalized picture; one that represents no man in particular, but portrays an imaginary figure possessing the average features of any given group of men. These ideal faces have a surprising air of reality. Nobody who glanced at one of them for the first time would doubt its being the likeness of a living person, yet, as I have said, it is no such thing; it is the portrait of a type and not of an individual” (Galton). By creating a series of composite portraits, he argued that interested parties could exam the “peculiarities and character, and from which we may draw conclusions that shall throw much light on the nature of certain mental processes which are too mobile and evanescent to be directly dealt with” (Galton).


In the years following, he solicited photographers to send him their castoff portraits so he could begin to curate a collection of photographs appropriate for his experiments. He became particularly interested in criminal types, following his belief that in order to improve society, the criminal and the insane must be bred out “The ideal criminal has marked peculiarities of character: his conscience is almost deficient, his instincts are vicious, his power of self-control is very weak, and he usually detests continuous labour” (Galton). As mugshots are intended to be a photographic record of the prisoner, each is produced using the exact same methods, providing a series of visually consistent portraits that were ideal for Galton’s methods (Pearson).  Galton partnered with Sir Edmund DuCane, the Director-General of Prisons, who proved Galton with a sufficient supply of mugshots to begin his inquiries into the criminal traits. After creating several composites of both prisoners and Royal Engineers, he compared them, noting “It is unhappily a fact that fairly distinct types of criminals breeding true to their kind have become established, and are one of the saddest disfigurements of modern civilisation. To this subject I shall recur. I have made numerous composites of various groups of convicts, which are interesting negatively rather than positively. They produce faces of a mean description, with no villainy written on them. The individual faces are villainous enough, but they are villainous in different ways, and when they are combined, the individual peculiarities disappear, and the common humanity of a low type is all that is left” (Galton). Galton continued to create composite portraits in this manner for many years, but alas he was unable to show a correlation between certain physical and mental traits.

Although his experiments with composite portraiture failed to yield the desired scientific results, Galton’s method contributed to the development of composite photography, a visual effect whereby one image is superimposed onto another. Methods of composite photography include physical composting, multiple exposures, digital composting and matting. These methods are utilized today in filmmaking and the visual arts. Contemporary artist Jason Salavon used computer coding to create composites of hundreds of images online depicting the same scenes of American life for his 2004 series “100 special moments” (Twilley). The resulting images reveal shared human experiences layered with the histories of the individuals photographed, and reveals often overlooked commonalities in the visual composition of each type of image.

For my series Untitled (Mugshot) Study I employ composite portraiture to map the complex relationships between offenders and victims, and explore the implications of nature and nurture in sexual assault and sexual abuse. In a majority of sexual abuse and assault cases, the victim knows the attacker, either through family, friends or work. Although the exact percentage is debated, it is generally agreed upon by the scientific community that one-third of victims of sexual violence/abuse will become abusers themselves, and about half of all sexual offenders were sexually abused themselves. Within specific groups, these numbers are even higher. These statistics suggest that there is a link between being abused and becoming an abuser. In relation to the nature vs. nurture debate, when victims become abusers, are those abusive behaviors learned (nurture) or are they inherited (nature) via genetics?

For this piece, mugshots of convicted offenders and their victims were printed on transparency film, and layered linearly in rows. These rows depict the order of offence, starting with the principal abuser and ending with a victim. The rows were then suspended between the top and base of a foamcore box. The box contained a panel of LED lights to illuminate the transparencies. The boxes are displayed at a height of three feet from the floor. The boxes are open on both the left and right sides, allowing viewers to move around the box and view the layers of portraits separately. When viewed from the front, the resulting composite image of each row is a portrait of a victim, composed of the complicated histories of abuses and victimizations of their attacker, and the offenders/victims before them. The series is composed of three separate boxes, each containing four rows of images that depict the sexual violence within one family.  The series as a whole forms a portrait of the cycles of sexual violence that occur within families.


Works Cited


Galton, Francis. Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development. New York: AMS, 1973. Print.

Orvell, Miles. American Photography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.

Pearson, Karl. "Life of and Labours of Francis Galton Vol. 1. Caimbridge: U, 1914. N. p. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

Stephens, Elizabeth. "Francis Galton's Composite Portraits: The Productive Failure of a Scientific Experiment" N.p., 31 Oct. 2014. Web. 12 Dec. 2014. 

Twilley, Nicola. "Out of Many, One: The Science of Composite Photography." The New Yorker. N.p., 22 Aug. 2014. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.










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